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Cholera outbreak strikes Haiti

Cholera outbreak latest failure for United Nations and Ban Ki-moon.

Cholera outbreak, Ban Ki-moon, United Nations, Haiti
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon delivers a speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, Oct. 19, 2010. (Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images)

Editor's note: The death toll in the Haiti cholera outbreak had reached 142 with more than 1,500 infected by Friday morning. Aid groups are rushing in medicine and supplies to try to contain the cholera epidemic.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — An outbreak of cholera has sickened dozens of Hatians, health officials here said, and raised fears that the disease could make its way through languishing refugee camps. It's a potential new disaster for a country still reeling from the massive earthquake that struck its capital almost one year ago.

The outbreak could be another failure on a growing list that has many here, and elsewhere in the world, wondering if the United Nations and its secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, are fulfilling its humanitarian role.

On one recent day here, in front of a garbage-littered, shanty-lined alleyway, a convoy of U.N. jeeps came to a stop. Sixteen military peacekeepers in camouflaged fatigues, flak jackets, blue helmets and armed with automatic rifles, stepped into the hundred-degree heat and began to walk.

Every two hours, day and night, this battalion of Brazilian nationals conducts foot patrols in Cite Soleil, the slum in Port-Au-Prince victimized for years by violence between armed gangs and a dismal lack of basic services. The battalion is part of MINUSTAH (United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti), which has been trying to maintain security in the city since 2004.

Given how the troops saunter through the streets, this patrol might seem routine. Not so for their boss, Ban Ki-moon. His fate, and the status of the global organization he heads, is inextricably tied to the future of Cite Soleil and other earthquake-stricken neighborhoods of Port-Au-Prince.

For the United Nations, Haiti is personal. And so far, it's not going well.

When the Jan. 12 eartquake took 300,000 lives, it also claimed MINUSTAH’s head of operations and 100 other U.N. personnel. On the 38th floor of the Secretariat building in New York City, the disaster quickly became one of the biggest tests of Ban's leadership since his election four years ago.

Despite the scale of tragedy, some analysts have likened Ban’s response to that of President George W. Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina: slow, underwhelming and off-message. The secretary general did not address the U.N. press corps until 14 hours after the quake hit. When he did, he seemed tone-deaf, saying the total death toll could “may well be in the hundreds.”

After the quake, Ban visited the country only twice — the last time was seven months ago. A report by Refugees International said that 70 percent of Haiti’s camps for people displaced by the disaster remain unmanaged, in part because of faults within the U.N.’s local organizational system. Refugees International cited complaints that the relief efforts were “disconnected from the reality outside of the U.N. compound.”

For Ban, Haiti may become yet another reason why the media and his detractors call him “Nowhere Man.” Since he began his term as secretary general in 2007, he has been perceived as uncharismatic, ineffective and unwilling to reform the organization he runs.

Most recently, Ban’s office inspired controversy for a U.N. report alleging genocide by Rwandan military forces against ethnic Hutus between 1993 and 2003. An initial draft of the report was leaked to Le Monde last month. In comparison, the final version appeared to be toned down. Ban denied that a deal existed to “save face for any troop-contributing nations” — such as those supporting U.N. security initiatives in Africa. But analysts say the report is deeply flawed.

The Rwanda report was not the first time in Ban’s tenure that the United Nations has been perceived as compromising its stance on a conflict. During the last months of Sri Lanka’s civil war between the Tamil Tigers and Sri Lanka, the United Nations was suspected of withholding information about the true number of civilians killed or injured.